Should we reject Modern Warfare 2 because it's violent?

Washington Times columnist calls for rejection of violent video games, takes aim at Modern Warfare 2

Are violent video games really any different to other forms of entertainment?

Are violent video games really any different to other forms of entertainment?

Marybeth Hicks calls Modern Warfare 2 "barbaric and harmful to the psyche of anyone" who plays it. She wants you to 'reject violent video games' and she's trained her sights on Activision's popular military shooter. The news yesterday was confusing, she argues, because it balanced the memorial service held for the 13 Americans who recently lost their lives in a tragic military-base shooting, against the release of a critically acclaimed military wargame expected to generate record entertainment industry revenue.

The trouble? Hicks says Modern Warfare 2 "is another immersive first-person game offering players the chance to vicariously participate in acts of violence for the sole purpose of...entertainment." She fingers one particular sequence in the game that lets you choose to participate in a terrorist massacre (or, unmentioned by Hicks, crucially not to), and claims that the game "incorporates actions that generally are considered taboo for video games."

"Violence is entertaining," writes Hicks. "We do it for fun."

We do indeed, though "fun" remains a vague, overly simplistic descriptor. Consider the physical kinds of violence we associate unthinking with football, martial arts, motorsports, wrestling, hockey, and boxing. Consider the various pre-electronic-entertainment activities children engage in, from cops and robbers or dodge ball to bloody knuckles or thumb war. In such real-world examples, people can and do get hurt. Sometimes they die. According to a 2003 "Comprehensive Study of Sports Injuries in the U.S." by American Sports Data, 3.5 to 4 million emergency room visits each year are sports-related, and the CDC writes that "over 775,000 children under age 15 are treated in hospital emergency departments for sports-related injuries," of which roughly 80 percent are from playing football, basketball, baseball, and soccer.

In video games, no one gets hurt. The activities on-screen aren't real, and no one's yet produced a scientific study suggesting gamers can't tell the difference. A handful of nascent aggression research studies have, on the other hand, found slight (some researchers have argued 'trivial') correlations between playing violent video games and an increase in temporary aggressive tendencies. Trouble is, the studies don't control for the kinds of things (family environments, peer group influence, genetic influence, etc.) that might just as well explain the data outcomes.

Then there's context to consider. Five cups of coffee early on makes me a fairly aggressive guy for the rest of the day. So does reading a book uninterrupted for eight hours straight, then having to interact socially. So does watching cable news demagogues for hours without remit, or eating a bag of M&Ms (and nothing else) for lunch, or not getting enough sleep. Should we reject coffee? Books? Cable news? Sugar? Impel eight hours of shut-eye by forcing everyone to pop Ambien or Lunesta?

Moreover, aggression research studies suggest it's not the content but the act of harming someone (or some anthropomorphic "thing") in a game that invokes the aggressive-behavioral correlation. By that measure, games like Bugs Bunny Rabbit Rampage and Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue are as likely to instigate the same levels of aggressive behavior as games like Grand Theft Auto IV (when you're even acting violently--you're often encouraged not to) or Modern Warfare 2. Has anyone written op-eds urging people to reject games starring Bugs Bunny and Buzz Lightyear?

No one's yet established a unique link between increased graphic violence in video games and aggressive tendencies (whether temporarily catalyzed or longitudinally inculcated) in players. Aggression research suggests a child tapping buttons to make Bugs punch Elmer Fudd is as likely to exhibit slightly heightened aggressive tendencies as an adult gunning down innocent civilians in a game like Modern Warfare 2. And recent research suggests it's actually mastering a game's challenges--not a desire for carnage--that motivates most players.

I'm 90 or so pages into Stephen King's 1,000-plus-page Under the Dome, his "finest epic since The Stand" released yesterday. No surprise, it's filled with scenes of terrible violence.

[WARNING, SPOILERS!]

So far there's been a plane crash, followed by a tractor crash followed by a pulp-truck crash, each resulting in fatalities reported in stark detail. Body parts rain from the heavens. A woodchuck splits in two. A man strangles a woman with his bare hands after initially driving her into an epileptic fit. Another woman loses her hand and bleeds to death in her husband's arms because local emergency services are overwhelmed. A news helicopter explodes and drops from the sky. A man's chest tears open when his pacemaker explodes. A woman crawls from the wreckage of one totaled car only to be flung like a missile through the windshield of another.

[END SPOILERS]

And that's just the literally violent stuff. Knowing King, who's always been more a humanistic than schlocky horror writer, the sort of figurative violence that occurs in character mannerisms and glares and lethally autocratic dispositions will turn out to be even more disturbing.

The point: We give writers like Stephen King the sort of pass withheld from game designers without thinking, despite the fact that as readers, we're participants in every act of brutality, every grisly murder, every reprehensible action. Reading requires an act of conjuring. The author provides the script, but the reader summons the actors and directs the scenes. Stephen King may be telling us a plane crashed, but it takes our imaginations to put that plane in motion, then to fill in all the necessary visual extras.

Reading may be a different kind of interaction compared with video gaming, but it's no less a two-way street.

If you doubt the power of words to incite violence, consider what some people will do -- have done -- for the sake of words on paper, words read by ordinary people as much for entertainment value as moral or philosophical import.

Then imagine the reaction if Hicks' column had been titled "Reject violent books" instead.

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Matt Peckham

PC World (US online)

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